Thursday, December 31, 2015

My New Year's Resolution this year: To give back

As I get ready to begin another wonderful year of art and making, I'm reflecting on what is truly important to me: community and generous sharing. This has led me to make a big resolution: I want to give back to the world that supports me. For every event I do this year, I'm going to donate some of the proceeds to a charity I believe in. Every single one.

I was raised in a small town, and the old saying "it takes a village to raise a child" definitely applies to me. So many kind people have helped me in so many ways, from taking me on as an apprentice to learn a new art trade (Thank you Terry and Deb!) to supporting my fundraising campaigns so that I could compete in extracurricular programs, to buying my art and attending my events. I will always be grateful for everything my community has given me. And I am amazed at how, no matter where I go, I find a community to support me and help me flourish. It's so true that nothing great is ever accomplished alone, and I am full of gratitude for the many, many people who have helped me get to where I am today.

Which is why it's extremely important to me to give back. I want to be actively involved in making my world a better place to live in. I want to give to others what so many have given to me. I'm going to start by pledging to pair up with a charity for every event I do this year. I'm also going to continue my Minion Program to share my love of wild foods with others. I can't wait to see what this coming year brings and I want to thank you all for being part of the last one!

Black and White: Happy New Year to me!

"Not only darkness is known through light but that, conversely, light is known through darkness." -Carl Jung

This seems as good a time as any to talk about light and darkness, endings and beginnings.

For those of you that don't know, I have been having excruciating, debilitating, and occasionally life-threatening health issues ever since a severe neck injury as a teenager (8 years ago, to be precise. A third of my life so far.) Most of it has been a partially paralyzed digestive system, though I have had other issues as well. A couple of years ago, the complications from this almost killed me. I dropped 30 lbs. in a month and was on a liquid diet for 3 months. I was in constant excruciating pain. I felt hopeless and scared, on the brink of death. Many nights I hoped I would die- if only as an escape from pain. 

This was taken at the beginning of my recovery, when I was still very skinny, sick, and scared. I am holding a wishbone from the first white meat meal I was able to eat after several months. 

This experience has been very difficult for me. I've had PTSD flashbacks from those nights spend laying on my bathroom floor, convinced I was going to die. I've broken down to tears after the smell of the soap used in the hospital or the intro to a radio show I listened to when I was at my worst. 

As a way to cope with the pain of the past, I looked to my art practice. This summer I held an event called "Chiaroscuro," which is an Italian word used in describing paintings or photography that show a large contrast between light and dark. I knew that the only way I would make peace with my "dark" would be to see how it illuminates the light in my life, and I wanted to share that experience with others. This event was not just about the dualities of good/bad and light/dark but rather a CELEBRATION of the contrasts in our daily lives- without sour, would we notice sweet? Without rough, would we appreciate smooth? This event took the form of a cocktail party featuring a menu of contrasting all-white and all-black foods. Everything came in pairs, but the black version of each pair tasted drastically different from the white version (briny black caviar to sweet white elderflower cake and milk pearls, for example.) You can see more photos from this event on my website,

This event was very healing for me. I shared my experience with the guests that attended, and they shared their own battles with me. In the safe setting of a formal party, we collectively opened up to one-another and learned so much about moving forward. At least I did. 

But this was not the end for me. Though I've been much better this year than I was the year before, I have still been struggling a lot with my health. I spend days in bed every month, too sick to work. I get frustrated with my limitations. So, back to the drawing board: 

Over these last 8 years, I have seen many doctors, and some helped more than others. So many of my symptoms seemed unrelated and bizarre, making it difficult to pin down the real problem. Finally, I started putting together the pieces to form a guess of nerve damage, which would explain my weird variety of symptoms. I then went to an orthospinologist, which is a highly specified and accurate Chiropractic doctor that focuses on the uppermost vertebrae where the spinal cord comes out of the skull. Turns out, mine was all kinds of messed up: heavily skewed to the side and rotated, putting a tremendous amount of pressure on the left hemisphere of my brain as well as putting pressure on some vital nerves, the vagus nerve included. A couple of days ago we went over test results and he did a small but very precise adjustment using specialized tools. 

He got very excited when we took the "after" x-rays (on the right side, above) and said that what we'd accomplished in one day is "nothing short of a g*ddamn miracle." Now I need to take it easy for a while and hope the adjustment sticks, it may take several tries. Then, time will tell what effect this will have on my body but I am feeling very hopeful. This is the first time since the injury that I have found a theory that can explain ALL of my symptoms, from the slowed digestive system to the muscle spasms in my abdomen to my hormonal imbalances (my body thinks it is going through menopause at 24) to a myriad of other things. My doctor thinks that these nerve issues are caused from compression rather than permanent damage. With time, I could have a hope of reversing a lot or even all of the problems. I could be free from the pain and suffering I have experienced the last 8 years. I could get my body back. 

I can't even begin to describe what an emotional whirlwind the last few days have been. I'm afraid of getting my hopes up- I had almost convinced myself that I'd have these issues forever and would just have to learn to cope with them. I am overwhelmed with the possibility of the freedom that only health can bring. I am scared of the recovery- because I know things will probably get worse before they get better. But most of all I am elated, ecstatic, overflowing with gratitude and the hope of new beginnings. What a perfect way to start the new year. 

A plate from the Chiaroscuro event, featuring a mantra that is particularly fitting right now. 
I'm hoping that when I reflect on 2016, I can look back on a year of health. I'm hoping that I can eventually be grateful for the injury that caused all of this pain, because it has shaped who I am. I would not be who or where I am today without this terrible tragedy. I'm hoping that in a year, I know what it feels like to be able to travel and plan and work like a normal healthy person. I've got a lot of hopes and expectations pinned on this next year. Time to let time unfold and bring some answers. Hello 2016. 

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Healing Mushroom Hot Cocoa (wild love)

Here's a great start to the new year: help your loved ones prevent cancer!

I've been learning a lot about the health benefits of various tree fungi, including reishi (typically known as Ganoderma lucidum, though the native species is Ganoderma oregonese), turkey tail (Trametes versicolor), lion's mane (Hericium erinaceus), and red-belted conk (Formitopsis pinicola). Reishi, for example, is held in very high esteem in many Eastern medicines as being a rather miraculous-sounding treatment for many ailments, including helping your immune system recognize and fight cancerous growths. Turkey tails have been approved by the FDA as a treatment for cancer, and the red-belted conk is used for a whole host of things.

It's all good stuff. These fungi are fairly prolific in the Pacific Northwest (especially red-belted conks!) and are growing on dead trees. Like apples, fungi are the fruiting bodies of the organism-the mycelium is found inside the host trees. These fungi are the mycelium's mode of reproduction; picking them does not harm the organism itself as long as you do it with caution. It's a good idea to wait until the varieties are mature so they have had a chance to spore, and always make sure you have a proper identification of each and are absolutely positive in your ID. If you'd like to purchase mushrooms instead, Mountain Rose Herbs is a great source!

So how do you gain the benefits from these mushrooms? Several ways. There are different constituents that are extracted in different ways- some suggest that the best way to make medicine from these mushrooms is a dual-extract. In this method you make a concentrated mushroom tea with water and then tincture the rest of the mushroom in alcohol to extract the non-water-soluble stuff too. But either way, you have to process them somehow- the cell walls in these woody mushrooms are too tough to be broken down by our digestive system and have to be softened by cooking or tincturing. When making mushroom tea, simply add the pieces of fresh or dried fungi to a pot of simmering water and let barely simmer for at least 40 minutes, longer if possible. Then strain and enjoy! You may want to add some sweetener as these mushroom teas can be bitter. Some friends suggest putting the fungi and water in a crock pot on a low setting overnight for a strong brew in the morning.

Also worth noting: many medicinal mushroom products on the market today are made out of ground up tree fungi. This works for some of the more tender varieties such as lions mane, but your body has a hard time breaking down more woody varieties like reishi or red-belted polypore. Therefore these preparations are inefficient and don't give you all of the medicinal values of these fungi! If you want to extract more out of them, you'll have to make a tea.

But here's my issue: if it takes 40 minutes to prepare a cup of tea, am I really going to do it very frequently? Probably not. Am I going to get my family members to commit to doing that for themselves? Unlikely. So I wanted to figure out an "instant" preparation method for these medicinal mushrooms that would allow my family and I to gain the benefits within minutes.

Here's the solution: Rice. Many of the websites about medicinal mushrooms recommend using your mushroom tea as a base for a broth for soup or for the water to cook your rice in. Rice is a particularly good way to go, since it absorbs liquids well. Turns out, it can absorb them so well that you can then dry the tea cooked in mushroom rice and powder to it to make an effective preparation of mushroom medicine, according to Ja from Fungi For the People, a local Eugene company teaching people about medicinal mushrooms and how to grow them yourself. I couldn't find any more resources on the internet describing this technique, but it makes sense to me.

So here's what I did: I sliced up my reishi and red-belted conks that I had harvested myself, and placed them in a pot of water. I let it simmer on low for hours (maybe 6 or 7?) until the liquid levels had reduced to a cup and a half or so. I strained it, reserving the fungi chunks. Then I measured out 1 c. rice per 1.5 cups of the concentrated mushroom tea and cooked a pot of rice according to the directions on the package. I then spread the tea-infused rice out in my dehydrator overnight. I then repeated the process, using the reserved pieces of fungi and the now-dehydrated rice. I figured I might as well do a double-strength preparation. When the rice was dry the second time, I ground it finely in my herb grinder, then sifted it well.

Then I added another medicinal mushroom, Goats' Beard (which is in the hericium family, as is Lion's Mane.) This mushroom is not as woody or tough as some of the other medicinal mushrooms, so it shouldn't have to steep as long. I just ground it up into a powder and added it to my mix.

Then I mixed my cocoa mix: 2 cups powdered sugar, 1 cup cocoa, a pinch salt, 1/3 c. mushroom rice powder, and about 2 Tbs. powdered hericium. 

To use, take 2-3 Tbs. cocoa mix per cup of hot water or milk, and mix well. This mix is on the less-sweet side, so if you have a big sweet tooth you may want to add additional sweetener. I like my cocoa more bitter, so I like this blend. The rice leaves some thick gruel in the bottom of your cup, like traditional Mexican hot chocolates made with the addition of corn flour. I like it and find it hearty and filling. It's a great warm up after a winter ski!

The family members I gave it to liked it as well, noting that you can taste the mushrooms but only subtley. They liked that it wasn't too sweet and that it was thicker as well. It's all about preference- if your main reason to drink cocoa is for the sugar blast, you may want to adjust the mixture to your liking. On that note, feel free to use other sweeteners such as maple sugar or coconut sugar if you're avoiding sugarcane. Just make sure it is finely ground so it dissolves well. If you don't like the earthy mushroom flavor you can disguise it a little more with the addition of cinnamon, nutmeg, hot pepper, or other spices. I packaged my mix up in little glass jars and gave them as Christmas presents:

And there you have it: medicinal mushroom cocoa. Hope you enjoy!

Worth noting: it's difficult to find the good, reputable sources about medicinal mushrooms among the marketing and wishful thinking, but at least I found some starting points. This is a great run-down of many of the medicinal mushroom varieties. As always, make sure you are positive of your identification before using wild mushrooms (or any wild food) in your own kitchen. Do your own research and decide if this treat is for you! :)

This article from discusses some of the health benefits of reishi. Check it out for yourself, but here's an excerpt:

"Scientific research indicates that the major actions of medicinal mushrooms are stimulating the immune system and protecting against cardiovascular disease, free radicals, mutagens, and toxins. Most medicinal mushrooms contain polysaccharides (complex sugar molecules) called beta-glucans that increase RNA and DNA in the bone marrow where immune cells, like lymphocytes, are made. The combination of compounds in mushrooms is believed to target the immune system and aid in neuron transmission, metabolism, and the transport of nutrients and oxygen. Three mushroom varieties -- reishi, shiitake, and maitake -- have been studied intensively and have proven to possess strong medicinal properties. All mushrooms must be cooked to get the nutritional value. The cell walls cannot be digested unless they are tenderized by heat.
Prescription For Dietary Wellness by Phyllis A Balch, page 167"

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Foraged Fruitcake (Operation Elf)

**Please note: this post is not totally finished yet. I'll be posting decoration ideas closer to Christmas. I just wanted to post the recipe now since it has to age and I thought you might want to follow along with me. :)

Ahh...fruitcake. You love it or you hate it. Me? Oh I LOVE it, if it's done right! I guess I'm more of a traditionalist. And let me tell you, fruit cake is an old tradition. "Culinary lore claims that ancient Egyptians placed an early version of the fruitcake on the tombs of loved ones, perhaps as food for the afterlife. But fruitcakes were not common until Roman times, when pomegranate seeds, pine nuts and barley mash were mixed together to form a ring-shaped dessert."
This trend carried into the Medieval times, when fruit cake was used for celebration. Imagine that processed sugar was rare and expensive, and spices were traded from far away lands for high prices. How luxurious a sweet cake laden with rich fruits and nuts and spiced with exotic flavors must have tasted! No wonder they were a special celebratory treat. And speaking of celebratory, you know the modern tradition of saving the top of your wedding cake in the freezer and eating it together on your first anniversary? Well that tradition actually carries back centuries as well but the cake in question wasn't our modern sugary and buttery (and quickly-staled) wedding cakes. It was rich, booze-soaked fruitcake. 

Considering the rich history of this misunderstood cake, I think it is absolutely applicable for a winter celebration. But you have to start early- fruit cake should age for at least a month and possibly much longer before it is said to properly "cure." I'm a little late-just less than a month till Christmas. But I'm making extras to store until next spring and test out then. 

And, because it's me, I want to make a fruitcake that tastes of the area I grew up in and love: the Northwest. I've got lots of foraged goodies in my pantry to play with: pine-nut whiskey, elderflower vodka, acorn flour, shelled pine nuts. I want my cake to be floral and nutty and rich. I also want it to be vegan and gluten free, because I have many friends with dietary restrictions and I know how great it feels to receive a food gift that I can actually eat during the holidays. (I'm horribly intolerant of dairy.) Well, this time, fruitcake for everyone!

The fruit:

Here's my logic on fruit: I'm not a fan of the plastic-looking waxy fruit commonly found in fruitcakes. Traditional fruitcakes used real dried fruit, and I like that much better so that's what I'm going to use. You can add citron if you'd like, but I know that some of the recipients of this cake would be put-off by its slightly bitter flavor. I do think that homemade candied citrus peels (perhaps infused with pine or spruce needles?) would be divine. Keeping it in mind for next year!

Fruit should be soaked in some kind of combination of booze and juice for at least 24 hours (and up to several weeks, depending on how boozy your mix is) before baking it into a cake, which allows it to soften and plumpen and take on lovely flavors. Roughly chop 6 cups of dried fruit, any combination you'd like. I kept my apricots and dates separated because they're more delicately flavored. Then cover your fruit with some combo of juice and/or alcohol. I put my darkly-colored fruits (cherries, cranberries, blueberries, and a raisin mixture) in with a good slosh of homemade elderflower vodka (about a cup?), some honey, and a bottle of orange juice- just enough to cover them. I wanted to really amp-up the elderflower flavor in the apricots and dates, so I added some elderflower vodka to them, plus a juice box of "elderflower  drink" from a recent trip to Ikea. (It's damn tasty, by the way.) Then I let them sit in the fridge at least overnight.

Okay, Okay, The Recipe! (makes 12 small loaf pans, and is easily halved)

Oven 325F

In a medium bowl, mix:
6 cups of pre-soaked fruit (see above; strain before adding and save the juice for later!)
3 cups mixed nuts, coarsely chopped (I used pine nuts, pistachios, hazelnuts, and cashews)
1 cup gluten-free flour*
Mix well to coat the fruit.

Meanwhile, in a large bowl, mix:
3 cups gluten-free flour*
1 1/2 cups almond flour
1 1/2 cups acorn flour
2 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. salt

Then, in another very large bowl, beat 1 3/4 c. shortening until it is fluffy. Add in:
2 cups brown sugar
2 cups white sugar
Add in one cup at a time, beating well after each addition. Make sure the batter is fluffy! Then beat in 2 tsp each of vanilla, almond extract, and apple cider vinegar. Then add 2 cups applesauce and beat well.

Mix the flour mixture into the applesauce-shortening mixture slowly in 3 batches, alternating with one cup of almond milk. When it's all combined, stir in the fruit/nut mixture and pour into pans.

Bake at 325F for about one hour, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Let cool, then poke some holes on the top of each cake and sprinkle some pine nut-infused whiskey over the top (about 1 Tbs. per loaf cake.) Store wrapped in plastic in the fridge for at least 4 weeks, adding another 1 Tbs. whiskey every week. Eat as-is, or top with a thin powdered-sugar icing and candied fruits. (I'm going to make my icing by mixing powdered sugar with equal parts whiskey and almond milk until it reaches the right consistency.)

*My recipe for gluten free flour is equal parts rice flour and tapioca starch. 1/4 tsp. xantham gum powder for every cup should be thoroughly mixed in!

The Result?

Holy crap this stuff is good, if I do say so myself. I was worried that all the substitutions might make the cake's texture weird, but it worked out wonderfully! Moist, dense (without being a brick) with lovely nutty and floral flavors of acorn and elderflower. The pine nut whiskey was a great touch to round it out. I can't wait to test these in a few weeks!

** Remember, this post is not totally finished yet! I'll be posting decoration ideas closer to Christmas. :)